PLEASE NOTE: This story contains mature themes. Reader discretion is advised.
Every television on Earth was tuned to same channel.
The Internet groaned under the weight of the endlessly swapped video streams, the excited and sometimes vicious commentary, the shared experience of teleparties and the insatiable thirst of the commercial concerns to capitalize on the event with sales and contests, puzzles and games, spam and swindles. Each network had tailored its own theme music and inspiring graphics; each government agency stood on alert with a stack of speeches pre-written to cover any contingency.
Words painted in laser light were spread over the face of the Moon itself, proudly glowing letters dozens of kilometers wide: Pepsi Presents - Planetfall Mars.
Sixty million kilometers away the object of the world's scrutiny plummeted through an airless void, its flotsam-pitted nose pointed into the swelling maw of the red planet. The burnished globe cast bloody highlights on the ship's proud white hull, pristine save for streaks of grime painted backward from the odd seam, and the radial halos of advertisements clustered around the exterior cameras.
She was called Pinnacle, and her name was underlined by the flags of several of Earth's wealthiest nations.
The ship was a modified Orion with an extended service module to accommodate the descent-ascent vehicle. Twin solar panels extended from port and starboard, like moth wings. They had Pepsi logos on them. By way of further decoration one of the thruster housings had been signed by a thousand children dying of cancer. The thrusters within were now dark. Pinnacle was coasting. She was engaged in a long, slow fall.
Mars waited; Mars pulled.
In her wake Pinnacle left a sparse trail of debris, like discarded plastic food containers, compressed cubes of the unreclaimable faecal detritus, and the shrouded corpse of Mission Specialist Lillian Cheswick. Cheswick had taken her own life for reasons NASA's top psychologists were still struggling to understand, her frozen body destined to spin in space for centuries, an infinitesimal dollop of jetsam too small for even the keenest telescopes to see.
Whenever the interior cameras were live the crew wore black armbands, and assumed solemn expressions.
"Naturally, Lillian's passing is still heavy on our minds," Mission Commander Major Keith Nelly told CNN, "but every man and woman on this crew stands on a lifetime of duty, and I know every one of them is one hundred and ten percent focused on the mission at hand." After a brief pause he added, "And there's nothing as refreshing as an ice cold can of Pepsi when there's important work, like this, to be done."
The interview concluded, and the red light over the dark camera lens faded. Major Nelly sighed and ran a wide hand through his golden locks. His wandering gaze unintentionally caught the eye of Captain Grimaux floating upsidown beside him. She cocked her head at him. "Subtle," she said, her dark hair fanning around her in a micro-gravity swirl.
"If it weren't for the sponsors," Nelly reminded her, "there'd be nobody on this old trip but robot fellers, and we'd all be sitting at home watching it happen on the TV."
"Spare me the folksy twang, Keith. Nobody's listening but us."
"I'm not even listening now," claimed Captain Lawrence Abrams, MD, as he drifted by with a smirk.
Nelly glowered at him. "We've all got to do our part, folks. Let's pull together as a team. I know what happened to Lillian is a cloud over us, but we've all got to work through it and put on a good face. The world is watching."
Abrams pursed his lips as he kicked off from the helm console, his arms working in a lazy front crawl. "Actually, major, I think the world is watching a commercial."
Major Keith Nelly had turned to examining the pores on his nose critically with a palm-sized mirror. He was painfully aware that his image was being projected fifty feet high in stadiums around the world, and though he had not heretofore considered himself a vain man over the past months he found himself increasingly obsessed with his physical presentation. His nerves buzzed with the knowledge that in a matter of hours he would become the most famous person alive.
"You look fabulous," Abrams assured him, ricocheting gracefully off the bulkhead over the mission commander's head and sailing slowly back towards Grimaux like a human ping-pong ball.
Nelly flicked his eyes over to Abrams in the mirror. "You sound sarcastic."
"I'm never sarcastic."
"You're making fun of me," insisted Nelly petulantly.
"I'm not, I'm not," claimed Abrams. "If I were a teenage girl I'd have pictures of you tacked up over my bed so you could infect my dreams."
"Everyone is always making fun of me these days."
Grimaux raised one sharply arched brow. "Now why would we do that, Keith?"
"I don't know," mumbled Nelly, teasing out his sideburns with a practiced pinch of his manicured nails. "Maybe you're jealous."
"Of what?" asked Abrams, pushing off Grimaux's console and drifting back toward Nelly.
"You're being purposefully dense, Doc," grumbled Nelly. "You know exactly what's going to happen when I step out onto the surface: I'm going to be bigger than Neil Armstrong -- hell, I'll be bigger than Suri Cruise. It's going out hyper-definition three-sixty: top-notch historic TV. They'll be playing the clip for centuries."
Abrams considered this as he floated, his expression philosophical. "A man lands on Mars, sure, they put it on television," he said. "But when the first Jew lands on Mars -- that gets written down."
"Are you trying to be funny?"
"I'm completely serious."
Nelly sniffed. "Since when is print bigger than TV?"
Abrams spread his arms in a hapless shrug, but said nothing.
Back in the habitation module Lieutenant Franklin Fisher and Commander Balour Anoush were playing checkers on a magnetic board velcroed to the side of Fisher's wardrobe. "I hate checkers," said Fisher bitterly, winning the game. He was lanky for an Air Force man, tall and slender and delicate with sharp cheekbones and white-blonde hair. As a computer scientist he was ostensibly responsible for maintaining Pinnacle's AI systems, but since the AI systems hadn't yet fumbled he spent most of the last months learning to despise leisure games of all varieties, with a special, vicious contempt reserved for checkers.
"Let's play again," he said. Anoush nodded, already resetting the board.
Balour Anoush was an excellent scientist, but stood accused of being beautiful instead. She lived in a perpetual game of cat and mouse with the shipboard cameras, striving to stay one step ahead of anywhere live. She was a doll to them. She hated being on television. She hated to be stared at. She hated the sick adoration. She hated, she hated, she hated.
"I hate you, Frank," she said.
"That's cool," said Fisher. "Your go."
"I'm serious this time."
Fisher frowned. "Mumble," he warned quietly. "Do you want an extra psych interview? The micro's listening." He smiled grimly and gestured at the board. "Hate the game. That's normal and healthy."
"I do hate the game," she admitted, head sagging.
"Buck up. We're almost there. You'll be busy. It'll be different."
"Indeed," agreed Anoush, making her move. The pieces clicked. "I'll be the subject of an entirely new round of humiliations as humanity's celebrity astro-whore."
Fisher couldn't argue with that. His own trials of publicity lay ahead. Fisher had accepted an exceedingly generous stipend from a coalition of activist groups to announce himself upon entering orbit as the first extra-terrestrial homosexual. Frank Fisher, however, was not gay. As the day of arrival grew nearer he was coming to see his greed in accepting the offer as increasingly regrettable. He wondered how he would explain his public outing to his mother. "Granted," he agreed with a nod. "But you'll finally get to build your little fort."
"Habitat," Anoush corrected him. "Don't call it a fort. It's undignified."
"Now there's just the kind of down home team spirit we all like, folks."
"Don't imitate Keith," said Anoush, looking over her shoulder nervously. "He'll hear you."
"Hey," said Fisher, "watch out: that camera's going live..."
He looked around. Balour Anoush had already escaped, a stray pen tumbling lazily in her wake. The red light over the lens stopped flashing and lit steady. Fisher grinned idiotically, and then folded away the checkers set inside his wardrobe drawer. "Hi folks, I'm just here...in the hab," he concluded lamely. His eyes flicked over the cue panel. "Brought to you in part by Toyota."
Every camera throughout and upon the ship was going live, the red lights above their lenses winking in warning. Pinnacle was entering high Mars orbit, and the crew were expected to look busy while she did so. It was a World Broadcast Event, one in a series of such noted in the mission calendar -- the last flagged as "minor" before the colossal hooplah of the planetfall itself.
In the command module Major Keith Nelly was peering through the forward viewports, squinting meaningfully at the mottled globe's rusty, sunlit face. Yolande Grimaux was strapped into the helm console, her fingers tapping on the glass instrument panels arrayed around her. Lawrence Abrams floated across the room, panning his head from side to side as if in search of something. He toggled the test circuit on the emergency cabin lighting. "Check," he said. "Check, check."
"Next burn in T-minus fifteen seconds," called Grimaux importantly. "Mark."
"Secure all hands," contributed the mission commander as he watched everyone worm into their harnesses. Several of the camera apertures buzzed in concert as they zoomed in on Balour Anoush. She looked at her feet.
There was a vague rumble. The crew felt a brief tug of inertia.
After a moment Major Nelly began to nod somberly. "Amazing," he whispered. "If only you could see what I'm seeing here today," he narrated as a camera pod moving past the cockpit temporarily obscured his view of the planet. "People of Earth -- we have successfully inserted at Mars. I repeat: insertion successful."
As rehearsed the crew applauded themselves and then clapped one another on the shoulder as they twisted in their harnesses to shake hands. Fisher hooted like an ape, and Grimaux squinched up her eyes and made herself cry.
"So..." said Abrams. "Are we there yet?"
Everyone roared with laughter. The cue panels signalled a commercial interval, and one by one the red lights over the lenses went dark. The laughter petered out abruptly. "This is so embarrassing," muttered Grimaux. "I'm not an astronaut, I'm a muppet."
Fisher unharnessed himself with a grunt. "Come on," he said, kicking off to the flight engineering console. "Let's try to get some real work done before we go live again."
There were nods of agreement. Despite the ridiculous trials of televised life, they were each of them consummate professionals: intelligent, dedicated, skilled and serious. Grimaux and Fisher cooperated to cover the late Lillian Cheswick's navigational and attitudinal checks while Abrams and Anoush ran down the status lights on Pinnacle's internal condition: temperature, atmospheric pressure, fuel consumption, radiation. "After all these months, you're the only one who doesn't look down my shirt while I work," Anoush murmured to Abrams. "I'd like to thank you for that."
"Forget about it," replied Abrams, eyes on the controls. "If I ogle Muslim breasts my Israeli passport spontaneously bursts into flame. It's a new security feature."
Anoush smiled despite herself. "What does that prevent?"
"Like all security features," grunted Abrams as he cross-checked his status board against a clipboard, "it prevents happiness and, as a side effect, the occasional rare horror."
"Horrors arising from breasts?"
"Oh yes," said Abrams seriously, turning to look into her gold-flecked brown eyes. "Mark my words: without breasts the world would know only peace."
"You're a misogynist?"
Abrams shrugged again, then looked down at her bosom with theatric emphasis. "I prefer to think of myself a warhawk, actually."
Grimaux and Fisher were also chatting. Fisher wanted tips on how to appear convincingly gay, and Grimaux wanted him to shut up. "We recorded some vibration in the starboard isochoric manifold," she said, tapping at the display with a mechanical pencil. "Does it show up in your tables?"
"How flamboyant is too flamboyant? I don't want to simper."
Grimaux rolled her eyes. "Keep your mind on the manifold, Frank."
"Why aren't you making some kind of announcement, too?"
"Because I have dignity," she snapped. "I need you to confirm this perturbance for me. Frank?"
"But why didn't they approach you?"
"Who says they didn't?"
"You said no?"
"I said my sexual orientation has absolutely nothing to do with my job."
Fisher whistled. "You're a better man than me, Yolande."
And the world held its collective breath nine hours later as Major Nelly, Captain Abrams and Commander Anoush wormed their way through the narrow tunnel that connected Pinnacle's interior space to the mouth of the Midas descent-ascent vehicle. Under the watchful eyes of a sextet of cabin cameras they nestled themselves into their seats and crossed the harnesses over their bodies. The scene inside the lander was quiet and businesslike, but they knew it was being projected back on Earth accompanied by a rousing original score by one of Hollywood's finest composers -- strings, brass, kettle drums, choir.
"Houston, we are secured aboard the DAV," reported Major Nelly.
"Initiating pre-flight check," said Anoush.
"Check, check, check," said Abrams, flipping switches.
Fisher's voice crackled over the speakers. "Your Micro-Googol is compiled and active, all modules verified and all satellite dependencies linked. I have a green board, major."
"Status nominal," contributed the Micro-Googol cheerfully.
Grimaux's voice came in next. "Drop window opportunity alpha in T-minus seven minutes, thirty seconds...mark."
Everyone did their best to refrain from wincing or giggling while Fisher made his extra-terrestrial homosexual proclamation, his voice quavering. After that a recording of school children chorusing their multilingual felicitations was played, followed by a brief message from the President of the United States. "All our hopes and dreams ride with you," she said. "And our most heartfelt prayers."
"Thank you, Mrs. President," replied Major Nelly solemnly. "God bless America."
The aft section of the service module spread like flower petals, hinges humming while a diffuse bloom of ice crystals coasted carelessly away. The lander's hull creaked as a blaze of unmitigated sunlight warmed it in the space of a few seconds. The thrusters began to vibrate, the formation beacons to blink.
"Opportunity alpha in T-minus one minute," crackled Grimaux over the radio.
Helmets were sealed, the air gauges tapped. The three planetfellers steeled themselves, eyes roving the readouts. Anoush flexed her gloves against the handgrips, mouth tight and brow beetled in concentration. The cue panel over the main camera began to flash, and the mission commander read the words there with a hint of a sneer playing over his full, rosy lips. Abrams looked at him inquiringly -- it was rare to see Nelly baulk.
Major Nelly cleared his throat awkwardly. "Wouldn't tonight be a great night to license something the whole family can enjoy? Disney: family friendly feeds, forever."
"Nice read, major," observed Abrams on the private circuit.
"Shut up, Lawrence."
A tone sounded. The mooring clamps released with a muffled bang. "Thirty seconds," signalled Grimaux. "Primaries are coming online, looking good."
The last half minute felt both long and short -- a gush of time expended in tedious slow-motion. Suddenly the view from the cabin windows changed. In one second they were expectantly staring up Pinnacle's densely packed rectum, and in the next second the mothership was dwindling to a bright point in the distance. A heartbeat later the lander shuddered as the thrusters ignited.
"You are free and clear to navigate," reported Grimaux from Pinnacle. "May the wind be at your backs, lady and gentlemen."
Nelly nodded in approval, toggling his mic to local only. "Do you think she rehearsed that line, or do you think it was ad lib?"
"Rehearsed," replied Anoush and Abrams in concert, as they had both been privy to endless weeks of Grimaux's practicing in the hab when she thought the others were asleep.
"It sounded very natural," admired Nelly.
"We're coming up to Manoeuvre One," warned Abrams, eyes glued to the instruments.
"Ten seconds," confirmed Anoush.
Manoeuvres One, Two, and Three went off without a hitch, and after just a few laps around the planet, Midas was aligned at the starting altitude for planetfall. Another three orbits were completed while Pinnacle and NASA confirmed every system, every setting, and every datum in the telemetry matrix. Updated satellite images were uploaded to Midas and, after a final weather check, they were given the green light to initiate descent.
Abrams got butterflies in his stomach. He belched.
Nelly looked over. "Doc?"
"Nominal here, major."
The Micro-Googol worked through the pre-descent checklist. Nelly, Abrams and Anoush endeavoured to look busy, to appear as something more significant than ballast while the machine prepared to jeopardize their collective mortality. Standing on the surface or as a burning trail of ash through the sky, either way they would all be heroes within a quarter hour.
Midas plummeted. From silence a keening moan arose. The craft began to shake, atmosphere burning at its heel.
They were tossed roughly against their harnesses when the hypercone deployed with an explosive bang. Anoush cried out, then squeezed Abrams' forearm with her hand, causing an instant sensation across all media outlets.
"Steady, people!" bellowed Nelly into his helmet mic, startling everyone including himself.
The parachutes blasted free next, then cupped the sky with a harsh triple jerk. Through the viewports Nelly, Abrams and Anoush watched the space around the colourful chutes turn from bruised purple to bright salmon. A thin, wispy layer of blue-white cloud flashed past.
Nelly counted in the retrothrusters as the Micro-Googol announced their imminent firing. "Six, five -- ready up -- three, two, one..." He clenched his teeth as the ship shook violently, engines roaring. "Ignition!" Major Nelly added pointlessly, shouting into the microphone again.
"Oy!" cried Abrams.
They felt as if their organs were commingling unnaturally, pressed into a patty somewhere near their hollow-feeling bellies. Their tongues felt fat, their bums distant, their shoulders and eye-sockets as heavy as lead. And then, by gradual degrees, this discomfort came to be replaced by a sensation that turned out to be as wonderful as it was at first bewildering: the familiar lean of planetary gravity.
Midas bucked in a pocket of turbulence. The Micro-Googol beeped. The crew felt thumps and buzzing through their chairs as the landing legs unfolded and prepared to catch the world.
The view through the windows was lost in an ochre haze.
Like a punch in the chest, Midas landed. The craft sank low and recoiled, landing legs briefly leaving the surface again. It then bounced to a slow, grinding stop against the strut shocks. Abrams, who had not heretofore realized that he was holding his breath, resumed breathing. Stars winked in the corners of his vision.
Suddenly it was very quiet. The cabin swayed slightly as a whistling wind blew against it.
Nelly straightened in his seat, then turned to look directly at the main camera. "Yesterday," he pronounced carefully, his mouth dry, "was the last day when the word 'world' existed only in the singular. Today our horizons have doubled."
Abrams tapped him on the shoulder. "Your mic's still on local, major."
"Damn," sighed Nelly. "I don't know if I can say it that smoothly again."
"Did you write that?" asked Abrams.
"Actually, no," admitted Nelly. "NASA had a team of PR guys do it up for me."
"It was very inspiring."
Anoush frowned at the communications display. "It's all for nought anyway, major. The video link is down."
"Video link interruption," supplied the Micro-Googol helpfully.
"Can we raise Houston?"
Anoush nodded. "Audio only. Looks like Frank's piggybacking a signal over the telemetry feed."
"Houston, we have a problem," called Nelly. "Some kind of failure in the broadcast pack. What do you read on your end? Over."
The silent seconds ticked by as Nelly's message was relayed at the speed of light back to Earth. Moments later: "Houston to DAV. We're working on it, major. Standby. Over."
"The sponsors are going to have a fit," murmured Nelly with a sigh. "Is this Fisher's fault?"
"I don't think so," said Anoush, initiating a sweep of the laser radar. "This front moving over us seems to contain a fair amount of charged particulates -- ionized dust. It might be giving us interference."
"Somebody get out and jiggle the antenna," suggested Abrams.
Nelly narrowed his eyes. "That's not funny," he said. "No one goes out before I do, and I'm not jiggling anything until Houston gives me the green."
The cabin swayed in the wind again. The crew shifted in their seats. Abrams coughed, then glanced at the chronometer. He licked his lips and said, "I spy with my little eye..."
"Jesus, Abrams," growled Nelly. "Can it, will you?"
"...Something hazy and kind of orange."
Anoush tilted her helmet and looked up at the windows. "A dust storm on Mars?"
Abrams nodded. "You got me. So much for that game."
An hour passed, and then two. Fisher radioed in to walk Anoush through a reconfiguration of the broadcast pack. Abrams occupied himself by taking everyone's pulse and blood pressure. Nelly lay back in his seat, his lips twitching in quiet repetition of his professionally written planetfall phrase. From the looks of it he was experimenting with different spots of emphasis. "Our horizons..." he mouthed. "Our horizons..."
The buffeting winds began to dwindle and the sunlight streaming in through the windows became brighter and more sure. Between breezes a patch of clear, rosy sky could be seen.
Abrams carefully unharnessed himself. "What are you doing?" demanded Nelly, head snapping over to watch.
"I need to stretch. My legs are getting all verklempt."
Nelly frowned. Abrams ignored him. He stretched out his arms and then took hold of the handgrips over his head and hauled himself out of his seat with a sigh of satisfaction. His body felt heavy, even under the influence of Mars' feeble gravity, after so many long months cooped up aboard Pinnacle with only its cramped gymnastic rig to keep his muscles from turning to marmalade.
Abrams knocked his helmet against the top of the cabin as he strained to get his faceplate close enough to the window to see anything.
"Can you see anything?" asked Nelly anxiously.
"Well," Abrams observed blandly, "either we're on Mars or we've landed in a very expensive and convincing facsimile thereof. Nice dunes."
"Being here doesn't feel as special as I thought it would," remarked Anoush. "Can we take our helmets off yet?"
"Standby," said Nelly. He looked up at Abrams again. "Doc?"
Abrams shifted his feet as he twisted to look out the opposite window. His body tensed briefly, a flickering spasm Nelly watched flash from his shoulders to his pelvis. "What?" prompted Nelly. "You see something, Doc?"
"Um," said Abrams.
"Report!" barked Nelly.
Abrams looked down at him, his features oddly slack. "I'm not sure what to report here, major. Can I see that lidar scan again, Balour?"
"What is it, man?" Nelly growled.
Abrams lowered himself back into his seat, reinserting his boots into the footwell gingerly. He blinked. "You know that old Stanley Kubrick movie, with the big black rectangles everywhere? They find one on the Moon, and another around Jupiter. What were they called? Monoliths. You know that movie with the monoliths?"
Nelly pursed his lips. "The one where the ship's computer goes crazy?"
"That's the one."
"What about it?"
Abrams took a deep breath, then swallowed loudly. "Well, there's one of them out there."
Nelly furrowed his brow. "One of what?"
Abrams' tone was disconnected, and strangely apologetic. "A monolith," he said quietly. "There's a monolith out there, major."